Sunday, December 15, 2013

Nelson Mandela's endorsement of Israel's right to exist and of "the legitimacy of Zionism"

The history of Israel's relationship with South Africa, before and after the end of the white-supremacist apartheid regime, is a story with many complex, difficult, and deeply troubling aspects.  That complexity was highlighted once again by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's last-minute decision, on a pretext that looked pretty flimsy, to cancel his scheduled trip to South Africa to attend Nelson Mandela's funeral on December 10—a decision so unwise and unfortunate, even scandalous, on the face of it that I still find it a bit inexplicable (though I've seen a range of speculative analyses).  President Shimon Peres had a plausible-sounding medical excuse that also kept him away.  Whatever one thinks of Netanyahu, he's smart enough that he must have realized how bad it looked for both of Israel's top political figures to be absent from Mandela's funeral, so I can't help wondering whether there isn't some complicate behind-the-scenes angle here that we may eventually learn about.  At all events, Israel was represented at the funeral by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and five other Israeli legislators (including one African-Israeli Knesset member, Penina Tamanu-Shata, who was born in Ethiopia).

=> I mention this recent unpleasantness mostly as background to a more important story about Mandela and his relationship to Israel, reported (below) by Alan Johnson, editor of Fathom.  It confirms for me something about Mandela's record of which I was only partly aware, and gives me new reasons to admire Mandela's historic role and greatness of spirit.

Here is a statement that Mandela made as President of the African National Congress in 1993, the year before he was elected President of South Africa. (If you're skeptical about whether the quotation is accurate, you can also find it on the ANC website.):
As a movement, we recognise the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism just as we recognise the legitimacy of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism. We insist on the right of the state of Israel to exist within secure borders but with equal vigour support the Palestinian right to national self-determination.
This formulation is clear, straightforward, and important.  And as far as I can tell, it was Mandela's consistent position through the end of his life.

Mandela and the ANC were, of course, thoroughly committed to the Palestinian cause and regarded the PLO as a fellow liberation movement.  So it's unsurprising, as well as entirely proper, that Mandela would have endorsed the legitimacy of the Palestinians' struggle for liberation and national self-determination.  What is more striking, in this context, is that Mandela explicitly and unambiguously supported Israel's right to exist.  That is, he didn't just indicate a willingness to accept Israel's existence as an unavoidable (though perhaps unwelcome) fact of life, but asserted that Israel has a right to exist.  And he supported Israel's right to exist, explicitly and unambiguously, on the grounds that Jews have the same right to national self-determination as any other people.  That cuts to the heart of what is as stake in the whole controversy.  Everything else is details—though the details are obviously very important.

(Lest anyone think that I am overdoing the significance of Mandela's position on these issues, it is worth noting that, to this day, almost no one in the entire Arab world has publicly accepted that Israel has a moral right to exist or that Zionism is a legitimate national movement—even people who, over time, have grudgingly come to accept the idea of making peace with Israel for reasons of prudence, realpolitik, or simple exhaustion.  I can think of a few exceptions, but they can be counted on my fingers.  As the New York Times journalist Ethan Bronner, who spent years covering the Middle East, wrote in 2003:
I once asked King Hussein of Jordan whether he considered Zionism legitimate. Did he accept that there was any historical basis to the Jews' claim to a portion of Palestine as their homeland? He looked at me as if I were from Mars and ducked the question. Later, he told a Jordanian colleague that only a Jew could have posed such a strange question. Perhaps by the time of his death in 1999 he had softened his view. But his reaction still exemplifies that of the vast majority of Arabs today. Even the many who favor peace with Israel under certain conditions accept its reality but not its legitimacy.  [....]
("On the Israeli side," Bronner added, "there are similar denials" regarding the legitimacy and moral claims of Palestinian nationalism—though nowadays significant numbers of Israelis, and certainly a major proportion of Israel's supporters world-wide, do accept, at least in principle, that Palestinians have a right to national self-determination.)  And I know people here in the US who have no desire to see Israel destroyed but who reject, or at least are uneasy about, recognizing the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish nation-state, though they have no trouble accepting the legitimacy of an Irish or Greek or Turkish or Egyptian or Palestinian nation-state—which means, whether or not they're fully aware of it, that they don't really accept that Jews have the same rights to political self-determination as other peoples.

In short, Mandela explicitly and unambiguously supported the principle that can be summed up with the formula "two states for two peoples".  Like it or not, that fundamental principle continues to be the only possible basis for a just, durable, and non-catastrophic resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—which, in turn, can work only in the context of a more general Arab-Israeli peace settlement that includes genuine Arab acceptance of Israel's existence and security.  That outcome is by no means inevitable, and in fact there are many good reasons for feeling pessimistic about whether it will actually happen.  But all the realistically conceivable alternatives lead to catastrophe.  So it's a good idea to take Mandela seriously on this matter, as on many others.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  And speaking of the details ...  here are a few of Mandela's statements to reporters during his visit to Israel in 1999, after retiring as President of South Africa.  On the one hand:  "My view is that talk of peace remains hollow if Israel continues to occupy Arab lands."  But on the other hand:  "I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognize Israel, within secure borders."

Mandela made these statements toward the tail-end of the Oslo era, before the dramatic collapse of the supposed "peace process" in 2000.  But they still sound like a good basis for a package deal.  Some tendencies in the Arab world have been inching in that direction over the years (and the broad outlines of an Arab-Israeli peace settlement along these lines were put forward, albeit with significant gaps and ambiguities, in the Saudi-inspired Arab League Peace Initiative of 2002—which, so far, has not been followed up from either the Arab or the Israel side).  Other tendencies have been moving even further away from it. All the available evidence suggests that a solid majority of Israelis are willing, in principle, to agree to a peace deal on this basis—but most of them have no confidence that it's actually a realistically available option.  What will happen in the future remains to be seen ... though, again, excessive optimism would be foolish.

[Update 12/16/2013:  I've been reminded that there is a a quotation from Mandela floating around the internet in which he accuses Israel of pursuing "apartheid policies" like the old South Africa.  This quotation is often cited by people hostile to Israel.  But it happens to be a fake.  To be fair, it appears that the person who originally wrote that statement didn't pretend that it was an actual quotation, but instead meant it to suggest what Mandela would say if he were really expressing his innermost thoughts.  But it now gets quoted and re-quoted as something Mandela actually said—which he didn't.]

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Jewish News Online
December 12, 2013
Mandela defended the Jewish state even as he opposed the occupation
By Alan Johnson (senior research fellow at BICOM and editor of Fathom)

That Nelson Mandela was not a fierce opponent of Zionism and Israel is remarkable.

It would have been convenient for him to be so. Firstly, the African National Congress during the Cold War was allied to the ‘anti-Zionist’ Soviet Union and Arab dictators, and received a lot of money from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Second, the ANC was supported by the South African Communist party, whose members, Jews included, took their line from Moscow. Third, as Israeli historian Shlomo Avineri has observed, there was Israel’s own troubling relationship to apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, not to mention the fact that, exceptions aside,”South Africa’s Jews on the whole did not oppose the apartheid regime.”

Despite all this, Mandela defended the Jewish state even as he opposed the occupation.

His memoirs tell how he learnt about guerrilla warfare from Arthur Goldreich, a South African Jew who learnt his trade in the Palmach in 1948, and recall how only El Al would fly his friend Walter Sisulu to Europe without a passport.

While some will try to claim Mandela as a supporter, the plain fact is he defended “two states for two peoples”.

We should remind ourselves of what Mandela said in 1993: “As a movement, we recognise the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism just as we recognise the legitimacy of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism. We insist on the right of the state of Israel to exist within secure borders but with equal vigour support the Palestinian right to national self-determination."

“We are gratified to see that new possibilities of resolving the issue through negotiation have arisen since the election of a new government in Israel. We would wish to encourage that process, and, if we have the opportunity, to assist.”

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